Signs of life

Mar 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

With the expansion of corporate behemoths like Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Blockbuster, there’s something significant — and almost sacred — about discovering a privately owned shop, or even the colorful remnants marking a bygone dream. Such a discovery is all the more powerful if the shop happens to be located in an economically devastated neighborhood. It’s precisely this regard for struggling local business that David Clements reveals in Talking Shops: Detroit Commercial Folk Art (Wayne State University Press, $34.95), a new coffee-table book showcasing his photographs of Detroit commercial folk art.

Divided into such sections as “Hand-Painted Store Fronts,” “Religion” and “Hair,” Talking Shops exposes the energy, humor and poignant hope at the heart of small urban business endeavors. Primarily depicting building murals and hand-rendered signs, the photos were taken over a span of 30 years, capturing everything from beauty salons and churches to auto repair shops — some of them long-defunct. In a sense, Clements has documented Detroit commercial history at its most personal. These are portraits of predominantly African-American-owned small businesses providing necessary services to the community, and standing out in a way that’s creative, spirited and completely distinctive. A far cry from generic advertising, the signs represent individual works of folk art. “I’m always interested in people who are trying to communicate to the public,” he says. “It’s this idea of small businesses being part of the American dream.”

Photography secured a place in Clements’ heart early on. “I’ve always been a photographer. I grew up with a camera in my hand,” he says, adding that his skills are self-taught. In 1968, he moved from Benton Harbor to Detroit and enrolled at Wayne State University, where he pursued a master’s degree in education. Clements settled in a rough section of the Cass Corridor, a neighborhood that stood in stark contrast to his relatively quaint hometown. “It was an environment I’d never been in,” he says. “I’d never seen prostitution and pimps … it was all new to me.”

Clements landed in the city at the height of the Corridor artists’ movement. Interested in the local progressive scene, he immersed himself in a number of community efforts, including the Detroit Festival of the Arts, Cass City Cinema and Detroit Children’s School, an alternative school. In the mid-’70s, his fascination with local commercial artwork took hold and he began the photo project that would occupy him for the next three decades and beyond.

Perhaps what’s most compelling about Talking Shops is that you never know what to expect from one page to the next — each image is wildly unique. “It’s like carte blanche,” Clements says of the city’s commercial design sensibility. “You gotta remember that Detroit was founded by the French. There’s a different value system. It’s laissez-faire, not puritanical. The French are [more like], ‘Let’s party!’” The Canfield Market mural is a good example of the anything-goes attitude — Bugs Bunny, Bart Simpson and Popeye share real estate with Muhammad Ali, Dennis Archer and Luther Vandross.

Some business owners seem inclined to mix metaphors, possibly even enterprises, to lure patrons. Did the workers of Gospel Hands Car Wash, located on East Warren, really administer a dose of spirituality with the sudsing? At Yetta Boo’s Boobs & Bunns Hand Car Wash, were there really scantily clad hotties on hand to wax your convertible? Maybe. But in the book’s foreword, poet and playwright Bill Harris points out that irony is “a large part of the aesthetic that informs African American images, ideas and ideals … This sort of hip, tongue-in-cheek awareness of the unspoken grinds and gnashes of the economic realities of inner-city competition is often so subtle that it flies below the radar of casual or hurried observers.”

As Wayne State professor Jerry Herron notes in Talking Shops’ afterword, Clements turns the tables on anyone expecting a kind of simpleton sincerity from local artists who work outside of the gallery system. “It’s not the sign painters and vernacular muralists who are ‘outsiders’; it’s us, the viewers.”

Christina Kallery is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]